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Records of North Pacific Right Whales along the coasts of California, Baja, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii

(updated August 25, 2023)

Records prior to 1855

There was a small amount of whaling by native peoples prior to the beginning of Yankee pelagic and coastal operations in the mid-19th century. However, most native tribes did not actively hunt whales, though they probably made use of whales that stranded. The Makah tribe of the Olympic Peninsula in Washington did actively whale from shore, but archeological digs at the Ozette site reveal that the catch consisted overwhelmingly of grey and humpback whales. Right whales comprised only a tiny percent of the bones found.

I have found no other records of right whales stranded or living along these coasts prior to 185. The Spaniards began inhabiting the California coast in 1769, and Russian sea otter hunters ventured as far south as the Channel Islands 1805. It seems likely that had there been coastal concentrations of right whales, as occurs elsewhere in the world, these would have been commented on or exploited.

Records 1855-1954

Pelagic whaling for right whales in the North Pacific did not begin until 1835, only after the whalers had decimated the populations of right whales in the North and South Atlantic and South Pacific (e.g. Australia and New Zealand). It picked up in intensity very rapidly then died off even more rapidly after 1848 and the discovery of the more valuable bowhead whale further north through the Bering Straits. I have estimated that the total number of North Pacific right whales removed by this fishery between 1840-49 was between 21,000-30,000 whales (see Scarff, 2001 for details).

The first record of a right whale along the Pacific coast south of Canada is from 1855. During the 100 years between 1855 and 1954, there are only 17 records of 22 total whales  along the California coast. Details of catches and sightings from 1855-192 are described in Scarff (1986) at Table 4. Since publication of Scarff (1986), I have learned of an additional stranding of a right whale in Oceanside, San Diego county, California (33o 12' N 117o 23' 29" W in February 1856 (Danil et al 2010 and the San Diego Herald,16 February 1856). The whale "floated ashore at the mouth of San Luis Rey Valley. Those who found it expected to obtain 600 gallons of oil from its carcass."

I am unaware of any records for this period from Washington, Oregon, or Baja California. Of these 17 records, there are only two strandings (Oceanside 1854 and Channel Islands c.1916), two sightings (Monterey March 1855 and Carmel 1880), and the remaining 13 records are of whales caught by the active coastal whaling operations that targeting grey and humpback whales. Two sightings (four whales total) occurred in the winter of 1879-1880, and three sightings (five whales total) occurred in the winter of 184-1885. There are only two records of right whales between 1887-1954. 

The coastal whaling operations in California came into operation after the peak of pelagic whaling for right whales was over. Their main prey were grey and humpback whales. Many of the records of right whales during this period correspond with the locations of coastal whaling stations (e.g. Monterey/Carmel - 6 records; San Diego - 3 records). A complete description of all records of NPRWs in the eastern North Pacific from 1900-1999 is available on-line in Brownell et al  2001 Conservation Status of North Pacific Right Whales.

I argued in Scarff (1986)  that the remarkably few records of right whales during this period, and the almost complete lack of strandings leads to the conclusion that the coasts of Washington, Oregon, California, and Baja did not constitute a wintering or calving ground for the eastern population of right whales (contrary to the accepted wisdom in the 1980s).

Records 1955-2023 off Washington, Oregon, California, and Baja

There have been only 18 confirmed records of right whales off California (including two sightings off Baja) since 1955.  Most of the sightings have been of single animals and most occurred in late winter or spring (March-May) very close to shore, several by observers on shore.

  • 5 March 2023. One North Pacific Right whale was seen at 9:47 am close to shore near Pt. Pinos, Monterey Bay, California by multiple observers on a Monterey Bay Whale Watch whalewatching cruise. The whale was heading west. Contact with the whale was lost after 15 minutes due to sea conditions. This whale was also seen by crew and passengers on the Princess Monterey Whalewatch boat that was on a whalewatching cruise. There are numerous photos taken that clearly show the animal was a right whale. Of note is that the whale had dozens of barnacles on its back and lips in addition to the callosities. The March date and the presence of coronulid barnacles parallels the sighting off Half Moon Bay in 1982 listed below.
  • 19 April 2022.  One North Pacific Right Whale was seen at around 9:00 am at 37° 06.029  N, 122° 26.003 W) 5.3 miles southwest of Point Ano Nuevo, California. The whale was spotted by a recreational fisherman named Jack Gross.  The whale was photographed and a short video taken, now in possession of NOAA which confirm its identity as a right whale. It appeared to be feeding by skimming the surface while swimming.  (pers. comm from William Douros, NOAA)
  • 5 May 2017 - Anacapa Island, Channel Islands, California - east of the lighthouse  (N34'00.675", W119' 19.869"  a single whale was seen by Shelly Johnson on the sailboat Zoarces. They were able to about 50 photographs, some with the whale lifting its head out of the water and clearly showing its callosities and a short video of the whale doing tail throws. 
  • 14 and 15 April 2017- La Jolla, California. A single right whale was photographed on April 14 by a passenger with her iPhone from a small private plane (Piper Cherokee) piloted by Chuck Houser.  Houser writes " The whale was at most 1/4 mile offshore roughly west of La Jolla Cove. It was pointed toward the shore. What I noticed about this whale was that it wasn't really moving.  The following day a single right whale, presumably the same animal was filmed at length from the beach at La Jolla Cove by a beachgoer and a TV news crew. A local TV station broadcast the video on air, but the TV commentators misidentified it as a far more common grey whale that was migrating north, and  only commented on how close to shore it was. Whale experts did not learn about this sighting until several days later after the whale had moved on.  Although whale watch operators along the California coast were alerted the whale was not seen again.
  • 2-14 February 2015 - San Miguel Island, Channel Islands, California There was a possible unconfirmed sighting off San Miguel Island in the Channel Islands. The sighting by Bob DeLong, a NOAA biologist researching elephant seals, who reported "seeing a pair of what sound very much like right whales off San Miguel for the past few days.  No photos but large, black, no dorsal fin, huge black flukes, sounds like callosities.  He saw them from shore but it really doesn't sound like it could be anything else. His sighting was reported days afterwards. A subsequent aerial survey failed to spot any right whales in the area.
  • 16 September 1998 - 1 unconfirmed "small" right whale in Monterey Bay was reported by Debbie Shearwater, (Shearwater Journeys). No photos exist, and other local observers believe this was an unusual humpback rather than a right whale.
  • 27 February 1998  near Cape San Martin, California. A single right whale was spotted off the Big Sur Coast, fleeing a pair of apparently aggressive gray whales in an unusual interaction observed by Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary officials. Monterey Bay Sanctuary Superintendent Bill Douros and NOAA Corps. pilot Lt. Commander Matt Pickett, were aboard the Sanctuary airplane along the Big Sur Coast near Cape San Martin, when large splashes appeared in the ocean below them, near a pod of gray whales. "We looked down and saw a large black whale being chased by several gray whales," Douros said. Pickett, who has flown right whale census projects off the East Coast, confirmed the sighting. "There were probably 12 gray whales in an area about a quarter square mile near the right whale, although only two were obviously interacting with the right whale. We saw one group of six gray whales swimming together, northbound, several hundred yards south of the right whale," Douros added. For about 15 minutes Douros and Pickett circled the whales, watching the right whale veer back and forth, splash and dive repeatedly as it tried to elude the pursuing gray whales. Eventually the right whale submerged for an extended period and Douros and Pickett continued their flight. While the right whale was swimming northbound, eluding the gray whales, neither Douros or Pickett were confident that they could predict the whale's overall direction of travel. "It's an extraordinary, unprecedented sighting," said Alan Baldridge, a cetacean expert recently retired from Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Laboratory, "We've never heard of aggressive behavior between baleen whales. We see aggressive interactions between baleen and toothed whales - such as orcas. But nothing like this."
  • 2 April 1996 1 right whale, estimated to be 13m in length of undetermined sex, was sighted in the company of 3 humpback whales off the western coast of Maui, Hawaii (20°56' N, 156° 46' W). The right whale appeared to initiate social interactions with the humpbacks. This is the first sighting of right whales near Hawaii since 1979. Salden, D.R. and Mickelsen, J. 1999. Rare sighting of a North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) in Hawai'i. Pacific Science 53(4):341-345.
  • 19 February 1996 15 km off Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (23° 02' N, 109° 30' W). A single right whale was seen by D. Gendron. This is only the third confirmed sighting of a right whale off Baja, although Scammon suggested they may have been common there. Gendron, D. Lanham, S., and Carwardine, M. 1999. North Pacific right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) sighting South of Baja California. Aquatic Mammals 25(1):31-34.
  • 3 May 1995 off Piedras Blancas, CA (Rowlett unpublished reported in Brownell et al. 2001)
  • 24 May 1992 off Cape Elizabeth, Washington (Rowlett et al. 1994, Northwest Naturalist 75: 102-104).
  • 24 March 1992 70km SW of the SE tip of San Clemente Island, CA (Caretta et al. 1994. Marine Mammal Sci. 10(1):101-105.
  • 9 May 1990 one animal 17m, 8 miles N of Santa Catalina Island,CA (Scarff, 1991).
  • 5 February 1988 one animal. La Jolla, CA (W. Perrin, pers. comm)
  • 20 March 1982. one adult 1.5 km off Pillar Point (Half Moon Bay), CA (Scarff, J. 1986.)
  • 17 April 1981 one 14m animal near Santa Barbara, CA (Woodhouse & Strickley, 1982).
  • 13 September 1974 . 60 km W of Fort Bragg, CA (NMFS POP)
  • 11 March 1965  one 15m animal 12km SW Punta Abreojos, Baja (Rice & Fiscus 1968)
  • 10 May 1963  44 km SSW Farallon Island (Rice & Fiscus 1968)
  • 11 April 1963 . one <9m animal 61 mile SW Pigeon Point, CA (Rice & Fiscus 1968)
  • 13 May 1959 . one 13m animal 16 miles SW Pt Montara, CA (Rice & Fiscus, 1968)
  • 31 March 1955 . one 13m animal off La Jolla, CA (Gilmore 1956)

Right Whale Sightings off Hawai'i

Early scientific hypothesis about the wintering grounds for North Pacific  suggested that Hawai'i may have been a wintering ground. However, later more rigorous reviews have failed to find more than a tiny number of records from these islands, despite the extensive searching area since the 1850s. Analysis or the historic record from Hawai's and what means is discussed in detail in Kennedy et al. 2012)  have not supported the idea that the Hawaiian islands were a

  • 2 April 1996  - a single right whale was seen off the western coast of Maui, Hawai'i (20° 56'N, 156° 46'W. The whale was estimated to be 13m in length. As was the case in 1979, the right whale was interacting with 3 humpback whales  (Salden & Mickelsen 1999). This same individual right whale was photographically identified on July 30, 1996 in the Bering Sea, 4,111 km of the sighting in Hawai'i. (Kennedy et al. 2012)
  • 25 March  and April 10 1979 one animal was off seen off Hawai'i and the sightings described in two reports by different researchers (Rowntree et al. 1982, and Herman et al 1980).

If you have any additional information or corrections to the above material, please e-mail me at nprw4ever@gmail.com.